On September 25, 1780, George Washington was scheduled to inspect West Point with Major General Benedict Arnold, the fort’s newly appointed commander. Washington considered the fortress the “key to America” and had tapped Arnold, one of his top officers, to defend it. Yet when the general arrived on the Hudson River, there was no cannon salute of welcome. Indeed, the fort was undermanned, and Arnold was nowhere to be found. Later an aide approached with documents. As Washington unfolded the papers, officers gathered around, sensing something was wrong as his face turned stony. “Arnold has betrayed me,” Washington announced angrily. “Whom can we trust now?” In the next few hours, Washington would learn the details of Arnold’s treason. Conspiring with the British for months, Arnold had hatched a scheme to hand West Point and perhaps even Washington—who traveled with only a small military escort—over to the redcoats. The plan failed, of course, and although Arnold saw battlefield action after joining the British, most histories suggest he had little influence on the rest of the war
Champe thought the plan for Arnold’s capture a ‘powerful and delicious’ answer to his treachery
At the moment of Arnold’s defection, however, Washington believed his treacherous officer could tip the war in Britain’s favor. Renowned as a field commander, Arnold had been instrumental in capturing Fort Ticonderoga, and his daring at the Battle of Saratoga, while controversial, was believed to have carried the day.
Yet he had been court-martialed in 1779 over charges of rampant corruption in his command, and Washington had reprimanded him. Now the general heard reports that another officer was in league with Arnold. How vast was the conspiracy? Who might join Arnold in treason? In the coming months, Washington authorized a series of secret plans to capture the traitor. When Arnold led a British invasion of Virginia, its governor, Thomas Jefferson, also set out to hunt down the man he once greatly admired. The two Founding Fathers went to great lengths, deploying a double agent and bounty hunters and even planning to attack Arnold with a fire ship. If the Americans were to win the war, they believed, Arnold had to be stopped.
SOON AFTER ARNOLD’S DEFECTION, Washington summoned one of his most trusted officers, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee. Lee, known as “Light Horse Harry” for his exploits as a cavalry commander, doubted that any other American officers had conspired with Arnold. He suggested that the general commanding the British troops in New York, Sir Henry Clinton, had planted the conspiracy idea to sow crippling doubt among the American officer corps.
Washington asked Lee whether there was a soldier who could capture Arnold and uncover any co-conspirators—“an indispensable, delicate, and hazardous project,” he said. Under no circumstances, Washington made clear, should Arnold be hurt or killed, even if that meant he would escape. He wanted to make an example of Arnold, not turn him into a martyr. “Public punishment is the sole object in view,” he told Lee.
Lee saw only one way to capture Arnold: An American must pretend to defect, become a trusted confidant of the traitor, and then kidnap him. There was considerable risk. To keep the mission secret, only a few could know the defection was a ruse. If the spy failed, he might be hanged and go down in ignominy.
Who had the courage for such a task? He would have to have the skills of a sailor, soldier, and spy. He would also need brute strength, great intelligence, and so fervent a belief in the revolutionary cause that he would put his reputation and life on the line. Lee said he knew of only one man who fit the bill—John Champe, a sergeant major from northern Virginia.
The 24-year-old Champe had enlisted four years earlier and proven a gallant fighter. He was a large man “full of bone and muscle; with a saturnine countenance, grave, thoughtful, and taciturn—of tried courage and inflexible perseverance,” Lee wrote later in his memoirs. But Lee worried Champe would balk at the mission because he might be thought a traitor if it failed. Washington countered that Champe was “the very man for the business.” Champe should take comfort, the general noted, that “the vast good in prospect should be contrasted with the mere semblance of doing wrong.”
At 8 o’clock on a mid-October night, Lee, who was encamped at Passaic Falls, New Jersey, sent for Champe. As the Virginian entered Lee’s tent, the colonel welcomed him warmly and laid out the mission. “I have watched you ever since you joined the corps,” Lee told the young officer. “I have found you uniformly brave, discreet, orderly, sagacious, full of ambition, yet of ambition of the most legitimate kind, and I know that you feel yourself to be on the high road to promotion.”
Champe, according to an account he later gave, was “charmed” by Lee’s plan, which he found “powerful and delicious” in the way it would repudiate Arnold’s treachery. He was not concerned with the danger involved—he assured Lee that he would “willingly lay down his life”—but, as Lee had predicted, he was troubled by the idea of deserting. Lee assured Champe that “his reputation would be protected by those who had induced him to undertake the enterprise, should he be unfortunate.”
This appeal to his patriotism, along with Washington’s faith in him, sealed it for Champe. Lee stressed Washington’s insistence that Arnold not be killed: “If, therefore, you find that you cannot seize him unhurt, do not seize him at all; and if the choice be between his escape and his slaughter, let him go. To kill him would give the enemy an excuse for alleging all sorts of falsehoods against us.”
But how should Champe defect? The British might not realize Champe’s intention and shoot him. Continental soldiers, unaware of his true mission, might pursue him as a deserter. Indeed, it would strengthen the illusion that Champe was defecting if his comrades gave chase. Lee assured Champe that he would do everything possible to delay the pursuit without letting on that the defection was a ruse. The general pressed three guineas into Champe’s hand and wished him luck. The two set a time when Champe would race to enemy lines. They synchronized their watches, saluted, and said goodbye. Champe returned quickly to his tent. He put on his cloak, packed his bag and orderly book, and fetched his horse.
A half hour later, around 10:30, the camp’s watch officer ran toward Lee’s tent. Agitated, the officer told the general that an army patrol had come across a soldier on horseback headed away from the camp. When challenged, the horseman had spurred his mount and galloped off.
Lee pretended to be too tired to understand the implication. Was this just some fellow from the country? Lee inquired. No, it was someone from the army, the officer replied. Impossible, Lee said, feigning disgust. His soldiers did not desert.
The chagrined officer skulked away. On a hunch, he headed toward the stable, where he was told that a horse belonging to Champe was missing. The officer then went to Champe’s tent, only to find that the sergeant major was gone, along with his valise and orderly book. The officer raced back to Lee’s tent and asked for permission to go after Champe. Lee hemmed and hawed. He talked about the character of officers. Finally he acceded, but said a different officer should lead the chase, wasting more time. After another 10 minutes, the new officer arrived, and Lee delivered his order: “Pursue as far as you can with safety Sergeant Champe, who is suspected of deserting to the enemy.” Bring him alive, Lee said. Then, in an order he hoped would be convincing but unnecessary, Lee added: “But kill him if he resists, or escapes after being taken.”
The pursuit party left around midnight, just as rain began to fall. Champe had been gone an hour, but the moistened ground gave the soldiers an advantage: Champe’s horse wore a shoe that left a telltale mark. For hours, they stopped at every fork in the road to examine the mud for tracks. Finally, at dawn, they could follow without stopping, and they galloped at full speed.
Champe was headed to the port of Paulus Hook, where British galleys were anchored on the Hudson across from New York City. When he reached a high point of land near the village of Bergen, he looked back and realized that his pursuers were less than a half mile behind. Desperate now, Champe remembered a shortcut as he raced by Bergen’s Three Pigeons Inn—a side road that he had once taken with the very men now chasing him. They would remember the shortcut too, he thought. So, after feigning in that direction, he chose another route and headed off again for Paulus Hook.
The deception worked. The soldiers entered Bergen convinced that Champe would take the shortcut and they were briefly sidetracked. But eventually a soldier found the print of Champe’s horse and they were back on his trail.
Champe sensed the pursuit at his heels. Stopping momentarily, he lashed his bag to his saddle. He pulled out his sword and tossed its scabbard into the woods. The soldiers were now less than 300 yards behind him. He plunged his spurs into his horse, waved his sword in the air, and raced on. Now he could see Paulus Hook just ahead. Would the British galleys be there? When the harbor came into view, he saw two galleys bobbing gently in the Hudson, just off shore. British sentries patrolled the marshy riverfront.
Champe had seconds to deploy his stratagem. He leaped off his horse and dove into the marsh, hoping the British would realize he was trying to defect. Both the enemy and the Americans could justifiably shoot him now. “Help!” Champe yelled as he flailed through the muddy water.
The British sentries sized up the situation immediately: A Continental officer was defecting, and his own men were bearing down on him. The British started shooting at the Americans, who quickly realized they were no match for the men of two enemy warships. A small boat was lowered into the river, and Sergeant Major John Champe of Loudoun County, Virginia, bedraggled after a night on the run, was welcomed aboard by the finely uniformed representatives of the British navy.
TAKEN TO NEW YORK CITY, Champe was provided with a letter from a British officer attesting to the extraordinary and dangerous circumstances of the desertion. His deception was complete. He was given a British uniform and billeted near Arnold’s headquarters. Four days later, he was debriefed by a British adjutant general. Champe knew that the British believed disaffection was rampant in the Continental army; the defections of Arnold and now Champe were proof.
So Champe told the British what they wanted to hear: The spirit among American troops was low, and Arnold’s defection had encouraged him to follow suit. Soon, he predicted, “Washington’s ranks would not only be greatly thinned, but…some of his best corps would leave him.”
Convinced of Champe’s sincerity, the adjutant general sent him to see General Clinton. Clinton, who had approved the plans to pay Arnold for his defection, believed that many more Americans would come to the British side. He quizzed Champe for an hour, then rewarded the American with a couple of guineas and a letter of introduction to Arnold, whose responsibilities included enlisting loyalists. Arnold made his headquarters at the King’s Arms Tavern on Broadway, a two-story wooden structure with a façade of yellow brick and a steeply pitched roof.
At his meeting with Arnold, Champe said he had been inspired to defect by Arnold’s example. Others would soon follow. Arnold “expressed much satisfaction on hearing from Champe the manner of his escape, and the effect of Arnold’s example,” Lee wrote in his memoirs.
Arnold promised Champe the same rank in the British forces as he had held with the Americans. Champe hesitated—or pretended to hesitate—over the offer, holding out for days as Clinton and Arnold wooed him.
Talking with the British officers, Champe concluded that Washington’s concern about American officers in league with Arnold was unfounded. “Great was my satisfaction at being able to report that the [accusation against another officer] had no foundation in truth,” Champe said later. Once established in the British camp, Champe carefully observed Arnold’s routine. He saw an opportunity in his prey’s regular visits to a garden. “I found that every night, before going to bed, Arnold was in the habit of visiting that garden, and I immediately resolved what to do,” Champe recalled.
One night, Champe met in his quarters with one of two spies Lee had recruited to help him. Champe outlined his plan in a message that Lee arranged to be sent to George Washington, who was pleased. “The plan proposed for taking A——d (the outlines of which are communicated in your letter, which was this moment put into my hands without date) has every mark of a good one,” Washington wrote Lee. Nevertheless, Champe “must be very circumspect,” Washington continued. “Too much zeal may create suspicion, and too much precipitancy may defeat the project. The most inviolable secrecy must be observed on all hands.”
Once his plans were set, Champe informed Washington, again via courier, that he expected to capture Arnold three nights hence. Champe and his two confederates would deliver Arnold as a prisoner to Lee at Hoboken, just across the river from New York. Champe next set the trap for Arnold. He instructed one of his accomplices to bring a boat to a nearby landing on the Hudson. Champe would arrange for the other man to be admitted into the garden. Then Champe would sneak in through a section of fence that he had loosened earlier, under cover of darkness. The two would grab Arnold, gag him, and carry him to the landing. Should someone stop them, Champe would say that Arnold was a drunken soldier being taken to headquarters.
Hours before the trap was to be sprung, however, the plan unraveled. Clinton granted Arnold permission to launch an invasion against the colonies in the South. The general later wrote that he believed Arnold had been held in “very high estimation” by the rebels and now would “exert himself to the utmost to establish an equal fame” with the British. Clinton also hoped that giving Arnold such an important command might persuade other high-ranking American officers to defect.
The men in Arnold’s fleet were ordered to assemble immediately aboard their vessels. Champe, wearing his British uniform, had no choice but to comply. “I was hurried on board the ship without having had time so much as to warn Lee that the whole arrangement was blown up,” Champe recalled years later. At the prearranged rendezvous in the woods, Lee waited on horseback with several soldiers. Hours passed, but Champe did not show. Lee finally returned to headquarters to inform Washington of the mission’s apparent failure. Washington was “chagrined” and worried that Champe had been “detected in the last scene of his tedious and difficult enterprise.”
Champe, meanwhile, had no idea where he was going. Even the captains of some ships had not been told precisely where the fleet was headed. Only after the ships departed on December 20 and were far at sea did Champe realize he was part of an invasion against his home state of Virginia, led by the traitor he had been ordered to kidnap.
TEN DAYS LATER, 27 British ships carrying Arnold’s 1,600 men slipped through the capes of Virginia and headed for Norfolk. After sailing up the James River, Arnold and his invasion force took Richmond, chased Governor Jefferson from his home there, and helped themselves to wine and rum in his cellar. For the next five months, the British moved freely about Virginia. To open a gateway for more British troops, Arnold established a garrison at Portsmouth, near the mouth of the James River.
News of the invasion apparently hardened Washington’s views about Arnold. He no longer seemed to worry that killing Arnold would make him a martyr. After ordering Major General Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia, he wrote that should Arnold “fall into your hands,” the French general was to punish him “in the most summary way.”
Arnold knew that he was a marked man. Each morning during the Virginia invasion, he awoke and slipped two small pistols in his pocket. He was surrounded by some of the greatest armaments of the British navy and protected by handpicked soldiers and sailors, yet he feared capture at every turn.
Captain Johann von Ewald, a revered Hessian serving with the British, wrote that Arnold would use the two pistols as “a last resort to escape being hanged.”
At one point during the invasion, Arnold struck up a conversation with a captured American captain. “What should be my fate, if I should be taken prisoner?” he asked. Looking at the leg shot and damaged while Arnold served in American uniform, the prisoner responded, “They will cut off that shortened leg of yours wounded at Quebec and Saratoga, and bury it with all the honors of war, and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet.”
Thomas Jefferson appeared to have no qualms about killing Arnold either. Though he had once thought of Arnold as a “fine sailor,” he now considered him a “parricide.” Arnold had been nurtured by America, and now had turned against it.
After being chased from Richmond, Jefferson came up with a plan to capture Arnold. He outlined his scheme in a January 31, 1781, letter to Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg, one of Virginia’s most experienced military leaders, urging the proposal be a matter of “profound secrecy.” Jefferson urged Muhlenberg to hire frontiersmen for the mission because he had “peculiar confidence in the men from the Western side of the Mountains.” Jefferson gave Muhlenberg the authority to hire as many men as necessary, instructing him to “reveal to them our desire, and engage them [to] undertake to seize and bring off this greatest of all traitors.”
If the men were caught, Jefferson warned, the British would be justified in giving them “the most rigorous sentence.” But if they succeeded in capturing him alive, they would receive 5,000 guineas to share; more important, he promised their names would “be recorded with glory in history.” The plan failed, however, because Muhlenberg’s men could never get close enough to the increasingly paranoid Arnold.
Jefferson turned to an even more desperate measure proposed by a Virginia naval captain named Beesly Edgar Joel. Joel suggested turning an old navy vessel into a “fire ship” filled with explosives. It would be crashed into Arnold’s vessel, either killing Arnold or forcing him to abandon his craft and be captured. It was a common strategy at the time, sometimes resulting in the spectacular destruction of an enemy vessel.
Jefferson enthusiastically embraced the plan, ordering that Joel “have everything provided which he may think necessary to ensure Success.”
Jefferson apparently did not know of Joel’s questionable past. A year earlier, Joel had deserted from the British Army, winding up in the care of Washington’s forces. Washington was convinced that Joel was a spy and not to be trusted. He wrote that he suspected Joel of “the worst intentions” and that he was an example of the British “practicing the arts of corruption.” Washington agreed to let Joel go free on condition that he was “not to come near the Army.” Joel then headed south, where he apparently had no problem volunteering to serve in the woefully undermanned Virginia navy.
With Jefferson’s endorsement, Joel was authorized to raise a submerged ship and try to turn it into a fiery weapon against Arnold. But the pilot Joel hired managed to strand the vessel on a bar in the James River for three days. Arnold apparently learned of the plot, and Jefferson reluctantly abandoned it.
AS WINTER MOVED toward spring, it appeared that Arnold’s invasion would deal a severe blow to the Revolution. A new British fleet carrying 2,200 men under Major General William Phillips, who outranked Arnold and assumed command, arrived in March, and an army led by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis was marching to the state from South Carolina. In June, British dragoons even flushed Jefferson from Monticello, his home at Charlottesville, 80 miles west of Richmond.
Although Arnold’s superiors were pleased with his work, some in the British ranks doubted him. One fellow officer, Major Frederick Mackenzie, wrote that Arnold’s “love of money, his ruling passion, has been very conspicuous in Virginia.” The Hessian Ewald thought Arnold served the British for “self-gain alone.” He wrote: “This man remained so detestable to me that I had to use every effort not to let him perceive, or even feel, the indignation of my soul.”
When Cornwallis arrived in Virginia in May, Arnold was recalled to New York. He failed to persuade Clinton, the British commander in chief, to let him lead an attack on the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Arnold did mount a devastating raid on New London, Connecticut, but when Cornwallis met Lafayette and the Americans in the war’s finale at Yorktown, Arnold was back in New York, awaiting orders.
Not believing that the war was lost, Arnold sailed back to London, where he tried without success to persuade the British to let him return to America as commander of the British Army.
John Champe’s odyssey ended just about the time Arnold left Virginia. The pretend defector had managed to slip away from the British with the arrival of Cornwallis’s forces. He headed first to the western mountains to avoid British patrols, then turned south, into the Carolinas, eventually returning to his unit commanded by Henry Lee. When Lee’s men learned the true nature of his flight, they showed their “love and respect” for his “daring” adventure, Lee wrote years later in his memoir.
General Washington congratulated Champe for his efforts and paid him a reward but insisted on discharging him from service. According to Lee, Washington was concerned that Champe would be hanged if the British captured him and considered him a spy.
Champe married and settled on land near Middleburg, Virginia, where he made a sparse living. He moved to Kentucky, then to an area now known as West Virginia, in search of more fertile land, but he became ill and died in 1798 at a fort near the banks of the Monongahela River. He was buried without even a marker.
Champe’s family spent decades trying to secure compensation for his service to the country. While his discharge from the military may have saved his life, his wife and children believed it denied him a chance at promotion and further glory. Congress gave token amounts to Champe’s widow and heirs on at least two occasions. But nearly 100 years after Champe arrived aboard Arnold’s fleet in Virginia, a bill was introduced that declared, “The revolutionary services of Sergeant Major John Champe have never been suitably acknowledged by Congress.”
In 2001, a chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution joined with a local historical society to place a headstone on Champe’s grave. Some 50 people turned out to give him proper military honors in a ceremony that included a color guard, a bagpiper, and a bugler playing “Taps.”
Michael Kranish is the author of Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, from which this story has been adapted. He can be reached via michaelkranish.com
Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ.